February 7, 2017

Bill to ease rule in wild animal attacks stalls



A House committee Tuesday declined to approve legislation to relax a state requirement that any wild animal that attacks a human be killed so it can be tested for rabies, citing testimony from health and wildlife officials who argued the change would pose a significant risk to public health and safety.

The state requirement drew a harsh national spotlight last summer after a marathon runner was attacked by a black bear in the Valles Caldera National Preserve. State officials tracked the bear, which wore a collar as part of a study, and euthanized it, sending its brain to a lab for rabies testing, as required by a Health Department regulation. The tests were negative.

The marathoner, Karen Williams, a nurse, was clawed and bitten. She said the bear was protecting its nearby cubs and should not have been killed for acting within its nature.

“It was not my fault; it wasn’t the bear’s fault; it wasn’t the race director’s fault; it was no one’s fault,” Williams testified Tuesday before the State Government, Indian and Veterans Affairs Committee. “We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, both of us.”

House Bill 109, sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, would have required the Health Department to ease its rule mandating euthanasia in a wild animal attack.

The intent was to provide a more comprehensive approach to wildlife management than a “sudden-kill reaction by state agencies,” Garcia Richard said.

Before killing a wild animal that attacked a human, the Health Department would have been required to consider several conditions, including the animal’s species, the circumstances of the attack, rabies in the area, the animal’s potential for exposure to rabies and the animal’s history and health status.

A committee vote to table the bill resulted in a 4-4 tie. The tie vote also meant there wasn’t enough support for committee approval, leaving the bill in limbo and possibly dead for the remainder of the legislative session.

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, joined three Republicans in opposition to the legislation.

Testimony from officials with the Department of Game and Fish and the Department of Health cemented Lente’s vote, he said afterward. “It was telling to me, that if these two departments can’t support it, what are we doing, really?” he said.

Representatives from the departments argued the bill would place an undue burden on state officials in a situation in which a timely response is necessary to determine whether a person might have been infected with rabies from a wild animal attack. Rabies is a disease with low prevalence in humans but is almost always fatal if a post-exposure treatment is not administered promptly.

Paul Ettestad, the state public health veterinarian, said the state must retain its approach despite the low probability of rabies in an attacking animal.

“Euthanizing a bear is not something we do lightly,” Ettestad said. “It can be easy to condemn what we do, unless you’re the one responsible for ensuring someone does not get rabies and die.”

The state has had to euthanize only six bears in the past 15 years, Ettestad added, in contrast with the more than 6,000 killed by hunters over the same time period.

The bill “creates a major public safety issue for the citizens of the state of New Mexico,” said Alexa Sandoval, director of the Department of Game and Fish. “This is not just about bears; there are other animals, wildlife, that do carry rabies in the state of New Mexico, and this bill would cause some delay in the department in being able to react to that in an appropriate manner.”

Sandoval later added, “Wildlife behavior is not something that you can categorize easily as being either predatory or defensive.”

Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said a bear, if given the chance to attack a second time, would cost the state dearly. “How many zeroes do you think will be on the lawsuit by the second family when they sue the state?” Rehm asked.

Garcia Richard and Williams, the marathoner, said they would continue discussing the issue with officials from the Health and Game and Fish departments.

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or tstelnicki@sfnewmexican.com.